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The Invisible Woman (1940) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review

The Invisible Woman
Men will gawk, even if there's nothing to gawk at

Professor Gibbs, a crackpot scientist funded by an irresponsible playboy, has cracked invisibility, but as his skeptical benefactor, Dick Russell, has just cut him off from further funds, he must resort to putting out a classified ad for a human test subject. When the only serious response to the ad turns out to be a woman, the professor has no choice but to go forward with the plan, but when the invisible woman leaves to take revenge on her slave-driving employer, he has no way of proving his success to Mr. Russell. Meanwhile, a team of hapless gangsters has also seen the professor's ad, and they set out to steal the secret of his wild, new technology.

This is 1940's The Invisible Woman, Universal's third entry in its profitable series of films increasingly loosely based on H.G. Wells' classic novel, The Invisible Man. This one is such a departure, it doesn't even bother crediting Wells, instead giving the original story credit to the previous film's director, Joe May. To be fair, the story of The Invisible Woman bears almost no resemblance to Wells' novel, though at this point, any story involving a person being turned invisible by science owes at least some of its life to Wells.

As an adaptation, there's not much to talk about. The imagined technology behind the invisibility is a little bit closer to the novel, but other than that, almost everything else is different. The power given to the title character doesn't change her too much (aside from giving her an uncharacteristic taste for alcohol), and the mechanics of invisibility are a little bit different, most importantly in its temporary effect. It's also not used for horror or action, instead opting for a completely different genre: romantic comedy.

The Invisible Woman
The professor turns her into an alcoholic

I tend to shy away from reviewing comedies, because comedy is even more subjective in my experience than horror. A joke that one person finds uproariously funny might fall flat for another, and trying to talk about the joke from an objective, critical point of view always comes across as stuffy and condescending. So this review isn't going to try to judge The Invisible Woman on whether its humor is "good" or not; sufficed to say, mileage will vary depending on personal taste.

That said, this is relatively inoffensive, vaudeville-style situation comedy designed to be family-friendly and wholesome. The movie wastes no time letting you know what kind of movie it is--the very first thing that happens is a pratfall--and the tone never shifts away from that. It's not crude, but it's not particularly intellectual, either. It's all a bit silly, but it never pretends to take itself seriously. As long as you know what you're getting into, it's not a problem, and if the humor lands for you, there's no reason you won't be entertained throughout.

The Invisible Woman
The actors are all on point

The actors, similarly, play it like the comedy it is, and they all do it with a good sense of timing and delivery. The screen legend John Barrymore is of course the biggest take-away here, as the goofy Professor Gibbs, but he is supported by a strong Virginia Bruce in the lead role. Bruce does a fantastic job as the independent, sarcastic model fed up with how men treat her, so much so that her transition into a shy, love-struck doe in the second half never feels genuine. (In a light romantic comedy like this, however, such a transition is inevitable.) The other great performance comes from Charles Ruggles as Russell's put-upon, constantly fainting butler, George.

The weakest characters are the gangsters, who stumble their way through the plot with a handful of jokes about how stupid they are serving as their only real purpose. One of them gets his voice accidentally changed to a high pitch, which upsets him so much he switches sides in the end, but the gangsters, on the whole, do little but give the plot its necessary, late-stage conflict. The Italian stereotypes are kept to a minimum, but there is a Mexican character who is forced to end every sentence with "I theenk" that is a little unfortunate.

The Invisible Woman
The wiseguy on the far right is Shemp

Surprisingly, the invisibility gags are pretty well-done. They're honestly the best effects in the series so far, though they aren't quite as ambitious as in either of the previous films. More attempts are made to hide the limitations of the technology: clothes are filmed at just the right angle to hide the other side and wires are very rarely visible. The nature of the gags lend themselves as well to comedy as they do to horror. The scene where the invisible woman torments her awful boss while pretending to be his conscience is pretty great, and the sequence in the cabin where she confuses poor George and starts drinking like a fish is technically impressive.

All in all, The Invisible Woman is a bit of harmless fun that still holds up, and Universal was probably wise to take the franchise in this direction in order to keep things fresh. Don't get me wrong; I absolutely prefer the sci-fi/horror of the previous films, but I can't argue with the fact that The Invisible Woman did really well at the box office and was a hit with audiences. I haven't been able to get my hands on a (cheap) copy of the subsequent films in the original Universal series--Invisible Agent and The Invisible Man's Revenge--so my current plan is to jump way ahead and cover 2000's Hollow Man next week.

-e. magill 10/10/2019

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